There was a reason why Spielberg let 'E.T.' stay home
“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things,” the protagonist says in “The Shawshank Redemption.” “And no good thing ever dies.”In movie parlance, substitute “a box office hit” for “hope,” and you have a good template for the current mentality of the business. Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm brought the welcome news there will be another trilogy of “Star Wars” films, which is hardly a surprise. That portion of the announcement represented a balm to Wall Street, offering instant hope of the studio recouping its $4 billion investment. Except George Lucas himself stated when the second trio of “Star Wars” movies were produced those chapters would mark the end of the line. “I will not do VII, VIII and IX,” he told reporters as he launched the prequels in 1999, insisting nobody else would either. “This is it. This is all there is.” The return of Lucas’ Jedi thus provides a reminder how the movie business has evolved, to the point where nothing successful can be allowed to fade away. In that respect, it’s fascinating to peruse the filmography of Steven Spielberg, and realize while versions of “Jaws” and Indiana Jones kept resurfacing, “E.T. the Extraterrestrial” didn’t just go home — but remarkably, actually stayed there. This year at the American Film Institute, Spielberg addressed why an “E.T.” sequel — discussed, but scratched — never happened. “Sequels can be very dangerous because they compromise your truth as an artist,” he said. “I think a sequel to ‘E.T.’ would do nothing but rob the original of its virginity. People only remember the latest episode, while the pilot tarnishes.” It’s certainly one reason why “E.T.” is remembered so fondly. If only the director had applied the same rigor to Indy, fans would have been spared the survive-nuclear-blast-in-refrigerator interlude. The steadfast reliance on movie franchises has changed since “E.T.” went over the moon 30 years ago. Yes, there were sequels, but the notion of eternal cinematic life hadn’t evolved to the point it’s reached today. From that perspective, it’s hard to imagine a studio sitting idly by for a creative demurral, even with a filmmaker of Spielberg’s clout, simply to protect the perceived virtue of a film yielding such a stellar payoff. Similarly, consider James Bond, who spent nearly three decades fighting a version of the Cold War on screen, only to soldier on 20 more years after the Berlin Wall fell — reinventing himself several times along the way — as MGM (and now Sony) desperately clawed for something to roar about. More improbably, the 23rd Bond feature, “Skyfall,” demonstrates even with such a long-in-the-tooth commodity it’s possible to exhibit wit and ingenuity as well as nostalgia. That’s quite an accomplishment when, as Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern noted, Bond “by any rational measure is a vestige of a vanished era.” There’s an interesting dichotomy here between movies and TV, which explains in part why the latter’s creative and cultural esteem has risen, while film — at least in terms of major studios — is occasionally dismissed as a widget factory, churning out superhero sequels and summer tentpoles, with little room for prestige fare on release schedules. Once predicated on slavishly replicating success for as long as possible, TV has become richer and more complex by allowing producers of programs like “Lost” and “Breaking Bad” to designate end dates and build toward them. By contrast, even if movies foster the illusion of closure, no one believes there won’t be more Batman films just because director Christopher Nolan completed his trilogy and opted to move on. If the current model represents a triumph of commerce, the audience’s complicity makes it difficult to second-guess studios for clinging to proven titles — enabling them to extend Bond past his logical expiration date and reboot Spider-Man in record time. That said, it’s still comforting to think we weren’t visited with multiple incarnations of “E.T.,” instead allowing the wrinkled botanist to escape into the night sky, forever. Unlike some sci fi, “Star Wars” — with its Saturday-matinee sensibilities — isn’t accused of being especially prescient. Yet in one of his titles, Lucas inadvertently forecast the trend in movies: “Attack of the Clones.”
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